At the beginning of August, Spokesman-Review newsroom staffers were asked whether any of them would volunteer to leave their jobs.
Management was looking for a handful of people to leave as part of the "voluntary reduction in force," thinking this would offer a way out for those close to retirement. In exchange, those journalists would keep getting subsidized health coverage for more than a year, and unemployment pay.
In all, 10 staffers took them up on the deal, meaning that in coming months, journalists with hundreds of years of combined experience will walk out of the paper's Riverside building for the final time.
Undoubtedly, the most well-known personality leaving is Doug Clark. The longtime columnist has already had his last day at the paper, announcing in a column last week that he's "reluctantly accepted an offer" he couldn't refuse. Since starting at the paper in 1985, he guessed he'd written more than 4,500 columns there.
"While leaving now is the right economic choice for a guy of my, um, vintage, I hate leaving the job that I poured my heart and soul into," Clark writes in his final column. "Practically from the moment I got into journalism (way back in 1974), my dream was to one day become a columnist for my hometown paper."
Publisher Stacey Cowles, whose family has owned the Spokesman-Review since its founding in the 1890s, explained in an Aug. 2 letter to the newsroom why the paper was looking to cut staff despite having some of "the best circulation numbers we've seen in years." (To pad its circulation figures, the paper has offered some readers year-long Sunday subscriptions for one cent.)
"Even with all of the strong support we are seeing from both local advertisers and subscribers," Cowles says in a letter to staff, "our advertising numbers are mirroring the significant losses being seen at other newspapers throughout the nation."
Though the paper is family owned, and its structure allows for weathering some changes differently than other media companies, Cowles writes, "the drop in revenue is substantial enough that we have to make changes to ensure we have a sustainable budget for not only 2017, but for upcoming years. Unlike other media companies, the changes we need to make now are not about short-term profits, but about long-term sustainability."
D.F. (Dave) Oliveria, a columnist primarily for the North Idaho-focused Huckleberries blog, also has had his last day, after working at the Spokesman since 1984.
"I wasn't ready to retire when the SR made its generous buyout offer. But close. But I wasn't planning to completely retire," Oliveria explained to readers in one of his last online posts earlier this month.
The other staffers said to be leaving in the coming months include Rich Landers, who has covered the outdoors extensively for the paper for more than 40 years; Mike Prager, who's been a Spokane newspaper figure since 1982 and covers transportation, weather, and general news; John Webster, who joined the Spokesman in 1973 and currently writes special projects and helps with IT; Nina Culver, who has been with the paper since 1995, and currently covers crime and public safety; Greg Lee, who covered prep sports; and Pia Hallenberg, who covered Spokane Valley.
Over the course of two weeks, the Inlander reached out to the writers who might be leaving to see if they would like to comment. Most did not reply, and those who did opted not to comment further on their time at the paper.
The staff reduction comes one year after Rob Curley took over as the Spokesman-Review's editor.
During his career, Curley has developed a reputation for being a leader in hyperlocal, digital journalism, but his initiatives inside various newsrooms have produced mixed results. He had success developing local websites in Lawrence, Kansas, catering content to different demographics. His time at other papers was more controversial. At the Las Vegas Sun, for instance, a Curley-led video program flopped, costing the paper millions; around that time, staffers "took to calling Curley 'Harold Hill,' after the main character from The Music Man, a con man who poses as the leader of a marching band and steals money from unsuspecting townsfolk," according to a Las Vegas CityLife story.
Back in December, Curley wrote that the Spokesman-Review newsroom had added staff and planned to add even more in 2017.
"Newspapers around the country make all sorts of changes every year and try to tell their readers that it's going to be better — that they're doing more with less. That's not true and we all know it," Curley wrote in December. "Well, we have a different strategy. We're going to do more with more."
The paper had added pages and planned to add more local reporters, Curley continued.
But the Spokesman isn't immune to the issues facing the industry. Nationwide, staffs continue to be reduced at both large and small operations. Even though many papers saw a surge in subscriptions after the presidential election, it hasn't changed the fact that revenue from selling ads continues to drop industrywide.
Unlike at the peak of the recession, when jobs were cut by the dozen (the Spokesman laid off 14 newsroom employees in 2007, and another 25 in 2008, to mention just two rounds of cuts that became expected nearly annually), most smaller papers have shrunk one or two jobs at a time, every few months, as positions are left unfilled or senior staffers are pushed out earlier than their planned retirements.
The number of newspaper jobs has dropped by 47.8 percent in the last 10 years. As of June 2017, there were about 166,100 nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That's fewer newspaper jobs than in 1947, the earliest data the BLS has, when there were 239,300 jobs tied to newspaper publishing that June, and the total U.S. population was half what it is today.
When the Spokesman underwent layoffs in 2007, its news-gathering staff was about 137 people, KHQ (also owned by the Cowles family) reported at the time. After this latest buyout, the paper will have fewer than 60 news staff.
Still, the paper has fared better than most others around the nation when it comes to cuts, Curley says by email.
"For our circulation size, we will still have one of the largest newsrooms in the nation," Curley writes. "Of course, that's fewer people than in the past."
Since Curley arrived, the newsroom has been in flux. Beat assignments have been adjusted and reporters are pushed to write more (with digital analytics in mind).
Curley emphasized that this round of buyouts was voluntary, and a good way for some people to get out of the business.
"No one was tapped on the shoulder and asked to go to H.R.," Curley wrote in a column last Friday. "It was generous and completely voluntary. And not the kind of voluntary that's followed by a few winks."
Though 10 staffers will leave, about half of those positions will likely be filled again, Curley says. The final staff changes are expected to shake out through the end of the year, as some people have opted to stay on for a few months longer.
"Yes, we get to replace them. And not just with 'younger' and 'cheaper' people like other companies often do after moments like this," Curley wrote last week. "Will our newspaper be different? Of course. You don't lose this sort of talent, experience and knowledge and be the same. But we also aren't giving up." ♦